The Power and Grace of Thailand

I joined ATMA SEVA in July to stay in Chiang Mai for two months, to teach English to novice monks at Wat Phra Non Pa Ketthi, and I’ve now been here two months.  I have happily decided to stay longer!

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Two of my students

I have built many bonds with the novice monks, some of whom I’ll visit at their temples during days off school for casual English lessons. Many wonderful characters, and when I am not at the school, it feels slightly odd not seeing them! A number of students are from hilltribes, so Thai is their second language, and English their third! They try to teach me some words in their local langauge, but I’m still trying to learn Thai! I try to make lessons fun for the novices, including activities and competitions, which they really enjoy, especially when I split the class into teams!

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My classroom!

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Me with some of my students

A few weeks ago myself and other volunteers had a mini English camp weekend in Wiang Haeng, further north towards the border of Myanmar, where we had lessons and activities for the novices there. It was an incredible experience and I gained so much respect for all of them, after we were shown a presentation by the novices, where we learned they grow their own rice, tomatoes and sweet potatoes as well as mango and papaya trees. Furthermore they build their own rooms and huts from the local mud mixed with cement and grass. The novices were wonderful and eager to learn English and take part in the activities, I like to think we all taught each other something.

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English camp at Wiang Haeng

After the presentation, they chanted as we sat at the back and listened before taking part in meditation. They then surprised us with lanterns, one for each of the volunteers, which we set off up into the night sky. In the morning, the novices made waffles for our breakfast, I watched them as they eagerly showed me their culinary skills!
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My new friend with the card he made me

When we said goodbye I was presented a handmade card by one of the novices, which made me get tears in my eyes, so sweet and unexpected.

Living in Chiang Mai is amazing, I have fallen into the way of life here, I have fallen in love with Thailand. Sometimes when I go around Chiang Mai city, I like to let myself get lost and walk around, absorbing everything, from the markets to the temples. So many temples to see, all so uniquely beautiful with great history. Some have lots of visitors and some are wonderfully peaceful, one in particular called Wat Muen Larn, was so peaceful I found myself ready to meditate, and so I did. I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting temples.

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Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

I am so glad there is an organization like ATMA SEVA and the incredible work they do, it is the best move I have ever made, and I feel so happy and privileged to be working with novices and helping them.

Victoria Castro


Wat Doi Saket Project – Lessons from the classroom, teaching at a Buddhist temple

This week was my fifth and final week of teaching at my first temple (Wat Pra non ba get tee) and the start of final exams and winter break for the novice monks. It has been a busy five weeks but I enjoyed teaching, getting to know the novices, and being a part of the school. I would like more time with the classes to see them progress further but I am happy to have spent the time with them that I did and know that they are excited about the next volunteers to come and teach.

Wat Pra non is a relatively small temple, located in a district outside of Chiang Mai, settled in between rice paddies and quiet streets with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. On the grounds there is the school, in two separate buildings, an outdoor eating area, the temple, pagoda, a small building to house the monks, kitchen, community space and a radio station for talks on Buddhist history, philosophy and healthy living (tune into FM 98.25 MHz!) A series of small gardens are placed around the grounds with hidden statues and wooden signs with faded white writing.  Tombs for the deceased monks line the back walls of the Wat in a row of brightly colored statues. The temple houses a large “reclining Buddha”, where his right hand out symbolizes his death and entering Nirvana. The walls of the temple are painted with detailed images of the Buddha’s life and his teachings.

The Wat is often used as a space for local events, including lectures, community meetings, and religious ceremonies. Local vendors come in to deliver bags of rice and jugs of purified water, and stay to chat with the monks and novices. There is even an “ice cream truck” that peddles in everyday after lunch for a cold treat to sneak in before noon, after which time the novices and monks can’t eat. Stray cats and dogs roam about for the leftovers after lunch and then relax for an afternoon nap in the shady gardens.

One of the novice monks who is from a Karen village

Only five novices and three monks currently live at the temple, and although that number fluctuates slightly throughout the year, it is still pretty small. During the week, one hundred and fifty five novices are bused in from other temples around Saraphi and surrounding towns to attend school here. Many of the novices are originally from hill tribe villages and farming communities outside of Chiang Mai and have ordained as a novice for a variety of different reasons -Thai tradition, financial strains, religion, behavior or problems at home but predominantly they are sent because their families cannot afford public school. I imagine it must be very hard to be away from home for so long at such a young age but some novices are fortunate to be with friends from their homes. One group of boys in particular came from a Karen village a few hours away and were able to ordain together at the same temple. Their village school is very small and poor and can’t afford basic resources for the students. The boys taught themselves some basic English reading and writing and ordained to complete high school. Despite the fact that Wat Pra non is also small and relies heavily on donations from the community and lay people, the school makes regular trips up to this village to give extra books, supplies and food to the people. It is amazing to see that even those who have very little still give all that they can to help others.

Afternoon gathering of all novice monks at the school

The school has six classes of novices broken down by age, from twelve to nineteen, and ranging in size from nine to fifty five, for a total of about one hundred and sixty students. Teachers are highly respected in Thailand and the classes begin with the students saying “Good morning teacher” in unison and end with a big “Thank you teacher ”. This surprised me the first few days; even the class of fifty five thirteen year old’s settled down just long enough for a proper greeting. The main focus of the volunteers teaching is conversational English and it is fun to watch the novices break out of their comfort zones and begin to speak with more confidence, even if they are just repeating words. Some are very nervous about speaking in front of the class or even to the teachers but most are just excited to learn, practice new words, and play fun games.

It is clear that many of the students want to have better conversation skills to communicate and connect with others outside of the monastic community. Thais are very friendly in general and do their best to make conversation with you anyways, even if they can’t speak English. I would like to work on improving my Thai to communicate better with the novices, and the students appreciate it to see that the teacher is learning along with them.

Along with the six classes of novices, I have also been teaching very informal English lessons with the other teachers at the Wat. The teachers would like to learn more English not just for general conversation but also for business and traveling. The principle of the temple school, who is a monk, mentioned he would like to travel to India to see the birthplace of Buddhism.  He said that if he had better English he would be able to speak with other monks there and it would be a more meaningful trip. This was encouraging to hear how teaching English can help even the most unlikely of students.

The teacher’s class is also a great time for me to practice my Thai and learn more words and phrases. One of the first classes I was trying to introduce classroom vocabulary and I pointed to a chair. Chair in Thai is Gao-ii (pronounced “gow-ee”) and chicken is Gai (pronounced “guy”). As I was teaching, they all started looking under their chairs and laughing. It wasn’t until I repeated myself a few times I realized that I was saying, “…this is a chicken, you are sitting on a chicken, I am sitting on a chicken…” Laughter and having fun is very important in Thai culture and it helps in many situations, especially learning a new language.

Although I have had a lot of fun and learned many things so far, there are also challenges to teaching in a foreign language classroom. The novices are all at different levels of English and basic classroom instructions are difficult to get across, especially with larger classes and on days when the Thai teachers are not there to translate. I have learned to slow down my speech, speak a few Thai phrases, and use classroom objects, drawings and body language to communicate instructions and new words but it is difficult to know if all the students understand fully. The other English classes are taught in Thai and focused on grammar, reading and writing but very little on listening and speaking skills for conversation.  This is why the Wat Doi Saket project focuses exclusively on teaching conversation.

The English teacher and I in the classroom

Another challenge has been getting used to “Thai time”. Classes are usually at least 5-10 minutes behind schedule and some days they are cancelled altogether. One day, class was cancelled for the principle to talk to all the novices about the importance of attending class. Other days the teachers did not show up, students are called in and out, and classroom space and materials are sometimes not available. As with any job, one frustrating day can not deter you from coming in with a smile the next morning, and having a relaxed and positive attitude is a must. Everyday after lunch the English teacher would hand me the keys to the office and tell me to “relax now, drink coffee” and I gladly would. When something was confusing or didn’t work out the teachers would often say “Mai ben rai” (don’t worry about it) and of course “sabai sabai” (take it easy).

The last day of teaching I was amazed by the appreciation and generosity of the teachers and the novices. I received a few goodbye notes and gifts, including an over sized teddy bear called Vanilla, aka Vanilla Ice. I also received two handmade bags from the hill tribe village mentioned above and a glass bird statue from the markets. The novices were proud to hand me their written good bye notes and I was just as proud to get them. I will be teaching at different schools throughout this year and will not be returning to teach here but I know they are excited for new volunteers and I had a great experience and learned a lot that I can take with me.

Next week I am moving into Wat Doi Saket and will be staying there through the end of October.  Check out the Photography Corner this week for pictures of Wat Saraphi and my students, and don’t forget to subscribe to this blog!

By Katherine Devine

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Photography Corner – Wat Pra non ba get tee

This Buddhist temple is located in the district of Saraphi, which is just outside Chiang Mai city.  This temple is part of the Wat Doi Saket project and a location where volunteers can teach conversational English to novice monks.  There are only ten monks and novices that reside here.  The school has approximately one hundred and sixty novice monks and they commute daily from local temples in the area.

In the main temple there is a giant Buddha statue.  The Buddha is in the reclining position with his right hand at his side which is the position the Buddha died in and entered nirvana.

These pictures are from Katherine, our on site intern, who just finished teaching at this Wat.


Photos by Katherine Devine

ATMA SEVA – Meet and hear from our new intern, Katherine!

Sawatdee-ka!  My name is Katherine and I am the first On Site Intern with ATMA SEVA! I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand two and a half weeks ago, after a few months of planning and almost 38 hours of travel! I will be staying in Chiang Mai for one year, working with ATMA SEVA as an English teacher, contributing to this blog, creating the newsletter, coordinating volunteers, and helping to develop the website. I am currently living at Saraphi Technical College and teaching English to novice monks at Wat Saraphi.

In 2011, I graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Studies and a concentration in Community and International Development. During my freshman year of college I took a two-week travel study class in Ecuador to learn about land use issues and the indigenous populations. Again, during my junior year I spent a semester in Australia studying Rainforest, Reef and Cultural Ecology through the School for International Training (SIT). Both experiences abroad left me with a desire to continue to travel and do meaningful work in local communities.

After graduating college, I spent one year back at home in West Hartford, Connecticut (USA) working at an after-school program in an elementary school and part time at a children’s museum in town. With a year of experience in the classroom and an aspiration to work abroad, I began the job search.  I first heard about ATMA SEVA through a family friend in Connecticut and contacted David (Programs Director) to find out more. After a series of email conversations and skype sessions, my travel plans were finally becoming a reality and I was set to go!

My first week in Chiang Mai was a great introduction to the country and Thai culture. The first day, David, Marcia (a volunteer from Mexico) and I took a drive outside Chiang Mai to find and a friends house where a third volunteer, Sapphire, was meeting with traditional healers. Our plan was to meet her and explore the area. We ended up getting lost and driving on the motorcycle for close to three hours! I enjoyed the drive though and the scenery was beautiful; rice paddies, fields of palm and banana trees, and lush green mountains throughout the vast countryside. Even the roadside fruit stands and noodle shops have their own charm and beauty. This was my first time riding on the back of a motorcycle and the only thing David told me to be careful of was the metal pipe on the side. For my first day I thought I was doing pretty good, until I touched the pipe. Ouch what a burn! Marcia remembered an old trick to rub an egg white on the burn before it blistered and our search for the friends house turned into immediate medical attention… with an egg. The first few shops pointed to their fried egg dishes and chickens running through the grounds until finally, we stopped at a small family shop and got an egg and a bowl to treat the burn. The women running the shop also brought out a medicated cream, and through a combination of water, egg whites, cream and laughter about the situation, I was nursed back to health to keep riding. Another quick look at the map and we were back on the road. David realized we were close to Saraphi, where I am now living and working, so we drove through the town and stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop near the temple. It was closed for Mother’s Day (the Queen’s birthday) but the woman opened the shop for us and we sat for a rest, noodle soup with pork, and a cold beer. A great first day.

The motorcycle I was riding outside the noodle shop

The rest of the week was full of trying new foods, exploring the night markets and Sunday walking street, more motorcycle rides, learning new Thai phrases, a meeting at Wat Doi Saket, dinners, beers, and even a Monk competition, where local temples show off their school projects – science fair style. I also spent a day exploring “the old city”, including the Chiang Mai Cultural Arts Center, and browsing used bookstores. And to top it all off, massage parlors and spas are abundant and cheap. In the first week I got two one-hour Thai massages, each for the whopping price of 170 Baht or $5.45 USD. I could get used to this.

To end the week, we had a visit from Sonam Lhaden, our ATMA SEVA partner in Bhutan.  Sonam is the managing director for Bhutan and is responsible for all tours and projects within the country.  We spent Thursday touring many different temples throughout the city and in the mountains. We talked about cultural comparisons between Thailand, Bhutan and the United States, and differences between Theravada Buddhism (practiced in Thailand) and Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in Bhutan). To my surprise, we found many similarities between our different cultures and I learned a lot about living in a Buddhist country. It was wonderful to meet her and make new friends all over the world!

Group dinner! It was at a friend of Nids (Dave’s girlfriend) house. Her name was Dang and her home is in Mae Jo district. From L-R; Sonam, Dang, Nid, Im, Katherine

I moved into my room at the Saraphi Technical College on Saturday and began teaching that Monday. Saraphi is a charming district outside of Chiang Mai with long tree-lined streets and plenty of local shops and family life. My room is in a section of teacher housing for the college in a quiet corner behind the automotive shop.

Saraphi road

Monday morning I was woken up bright and early by my neighbor Nit, a teacher at both the technical college and Wat Saraphi, telling me to get dressed and ready for breakfast. With little time to get ready I stepped out of my room wearing a long black Patagonia dress and sandals. Nit looked at my shoes and shook her head, “No no no.” She turned back into her room, picked up a pair of bright orange cheetah print heels and handed them to me to put on. I tried to politely decline the shoes but she looked down at my sandals again, thought for a second and insisted. I put the shoes on and we walked to the eating area for a breakfast of rice, pork and a fried egg. The courtyard was crowded and soon I heard music playing over the loudspeakers signaling the start of the morning announcements as students lined up in the courtyard. I was introduced to a few other teachers and sat down for the announcements. Next thing I know I hear, “ATMA SEVA… Kat-er-een!” and all of the students clapping. Wait… what?! I walked clumsily to the front of the courtyard, stepped on stage and took the microphone. “Sawatdeeka” (Hello in Thai) The students replied Sawatdeeka and a deep “Wai” or short bow showing respect and then sat quietly. “Chan chew Katherine…. I am a teacher… I am from America… I am excited to be here…” It was short and sweet and I just laughed to myself as I stepped off the stage. That explains the heels.

Later that morning, in my own shoes, David and I headed to the temple for my first day to observe in the classroom. I was unsure at first about how to properly act around the monks and how much English they knew but I was quickly put at ease with how friendly, funny and willing to learn most of the novices are. Yes they are novice monks wearing saffron robes, studying Buddhist texts, chanting and living in the temples, but they are still just teenage boys at the end of the day.

My day of observation turned into teaching two classes in a row with David, including a class of 55! Although it is a large group the students are respectful and excited to have new teachers. Throughout the rest of the week I went over the same basic conversations with the classes and even started English classes for the other teachers!

First day in the classroom

It has been a long week and the first days I felt nervous and unsure of the lessons, but after only a few days of warm smiles and genuine laughter from both the students and the teachers I feel more confident in my teaching and my place at the school. I have a lot to learn about Buddhism, the novices, and teaching in general but I am looking forward to all of it.

I will be teaching through the end of September and then spending some time in the Lawa Village, five hours outside of Chiang Mai.  Subscribe to our blog and ‘Like’ our Facebook page to follow along for my adventures and more on teaching, the students, Buddhism, and life in Thailand!

Katherine Devine

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